OyChicago blog

Leaving Las Vegas

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Leaving Las Vegas photo 1

Last month, I went on a much-needed vacation with my hubby—our first ‘adults only’ trip since our daughter was born.  It.  Was.  Awesome.

We slept for more than 14 HOURS straight the first night.  We traveled with carry-on luggage only.  And for three entire days all I needed to carry was a wallet—no diapers, wipes, snacks or toys.  For three days, it was just the two of us, and we felt 10 years younger.

I felt zero guilt about leaving my daughter.  I missed her, but for the first time in 2+ years I GOT TO SLEEP IN.  If you think this makes me a bad Mommy, get a new definition of bad.

There was only one little problem with our relaxing vacation.  We were in Vegas.  As in Vegas baby, Vegas!!!  The city of lights, America’s playground, etc., etc., etc.

It seemed like a good idea—spend a little time at the spa, catch a show, maybe do a little shopping, and if we won the whole trip could be free!  Where else do have the potential to make money on vacation? So (assuming you can also tolerate losing some money) what could possibly be bad about a relaxing trip to Vegas?

In theory, nothing—but Vegas was designed to stimulate the senses, in every possible way.  So it’s probably not the best place to relax and unwind at the height of tourist season when you have to fight your way through mobs of tourists just to get to the spa.

Still… overall it was a great trip.  Yet, something was “off” on this trip that I just couldn’t quite put my finger on.

And then what “it” was dawned on me as a very pretty, very young, and very, very scantily clad waitress took my drink order.  Instead of thinking “I wish I had her body” I thought: “I hope my daughter never has a job that requires her dress like that, I don’t care what it pays.”  I wanted to give her my sweater.

Leaving Las Vegas photo 2

This better be as short as her hemline ever gets.

Truth is, I’m just too damn old, too damn middle-class, and definitely too much of a mom, to enjoy Vegas.

At 36, I’m too old to party late into the night and still get up in the morning like I could in my 20s—even if I still wanted to.  (The upside: I can now afford a spa visit—but I can do that at home.)  My middle-class sensibilities were irked by the multitude of stores where handbags cost more than most families living in poverty must live on for an entire year.  I kept thinking “just think what that money could do if given to a charity.”  I knew this before the trip, but darn it if Vegas didn’t confirm just how old and practical I have gotten.

But the last part—that I was too much of a mom to thoroughly enjoy Vegas—was the most surprising revelation.  I’m aware of the whole “sin city” is Vegas’ deal, and if you aren’t down for that, don’t go, thing.  But it really got to me.  This was my tenth time in Vegas, but the first time I really took stock of the multiple ways women were being sold—from billboards advertising topless shows, strip clubs, and “adult services” to the waitresses’ whose uniforms had less material than my bathing suit.  It made me sad, and I kept thinking that I hope my daughter doesn’t ever have to dress provocatively to earn a living, please a man, or just to feel attractive.

And I kept wondering: why?  Why did every woman in Vegas need to be barely dressed—even just to do a relatively normal job?  Why does our society still focus so much on women and sex?  Just like I wonder “why” each time I see a teenage girl wearing shorts that barely covers her assets.  When did baring nearly all become the norm for young girls—from Las Vegas, NV to Deerfield, IL?  And more importantly, when will it end? (By Lindsay’s Bat Mitzvah, I hope.)

Time and parenthood has turned me into a hypocrite, and I’m not proud of that.  Sure, I have never had to dress provocatively to earn a living, but I’ve worn outfits that I wouldn’t let my daughter out of the house in.  And at the time I didn’t feel “exploited”—just as I imagine a lot of women working in Vegas don’t feel that way either, probably the opposite.  But I don’t want my daughter buying into what society tells us is “sexy” for a woman—because too often it is sexist and exploits young women.  I want my daughter to know that her assets are found in her heart and her head—not in her bra.

I think this was the last time that I will leave Las Vegas.  Viva Las Vegas—but I hope someday more has changed about it than just the hotels on the strip.


The ambiguously ethnic trio!

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While the Chavis family is one of Eastern European descent, my sister and I have a running joke in which we affectionately refer to ourselves as The Sisters Chavez—a wordplay on the novel called The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The joke, however, has nothing to do with the novel. I am, if nothing else, an English major nerd at heart.

The Chavis sisters have always been somewhat of a novelty and subject of conversation, namely, because we come in three. Often, the discussion is one of pity for my poor, sonless father who relies on our family dog for male companionship—worsened only by the fact that my dog never learned the game of “catch.” When we were little, people commented on how the Chavis sisters all had extremely long, curly, hair down to our butts (yes, we were a product of the 1990s Full House generation). As we grew older it was, “Which schools are the Chavis sisters attending?” As of late, it’s “Are any of the Chavis sisters married yet?”—to which my mother solemnly replies, “No! (*clicks her tongue*) I want grandchildren!”

Chavis became “Chavez,” however, after years of people confusing just what ethnicity the Chavis sisters are. We, Sisters Chavez, are a bit of an ethnic conundrum—one that manifests differently with each of us. In general, I think Jewish people look somewhat ethnically ambiguous, partly because many of us are. However, my sisters and I all look pretty different even within the same family. My oldest sister is very fair-skinned with curly, brown-black hair, my middle sister has an olive complexion also with dark curly hair, and I (the youngest) am light skinned with freckles and reddish-brown curly hair.

My middle sister, like my parents, often gets confused for being of Hispanic, Greek or Italian origin. In fact, my dad proudly reminds us that on one or two occasions his hair dresser told him he looks like Antonio Banderas (Wishful thinking, but we all humor him).

My middle sister says when people first meet her they often give the same puzzled look, as if they’re trying to figure her out. I’ve witnessed it, particularly when I’ve gone out to dinner with her in Greek Town. Once she tells them her last name, they seem relieved because people almost always hear Chavis as “Chavez.” Poof! They have figured her out, she must be Hispanic. She must then explain that she’s mostly Russian.

My sister has always said that I (of the three sisters) look the most “American”—whatever that means? I think she means to say that I don’t have features that immediately align me with a certain ethnicity. However, people often think I’m Irish because of my freckles and big eyes. This confuses them further when they hear my first name “Blair,” (Irish) and last name, “Chavis,” which they hear as “Chavez.” In all honesty, "Chavis" was probably something else at one point, but after Ellis Island, it's anyone's guess.

My sister and I experience a strange reversal in which her physical appearance, which is ethnically ambiguous, is somehow wrongly clarified by her name; whereas my appearance is less ethnically ambiguous, to be made more ambiguous by name.

What’s the point? The Chavez sisters make for an interesting case study in what it’s like to be Jewish in America. Also, this happens so frequently to us, that it has gotten me thinking about people’s need to categorize and compartmentalize other people. This is nothing new, and is the reason stereotypes exist. However, it’s actually amusing for us to watch people become unnerved when they can’t figure us out. What does it mean to people if I’m Irish, of Hispanic origin or Russian? Will they view me differently?

In general, Jewish people have a fascination with sniffing each other out. I think it’s fair to say that a great majority of them are Jewish mothers scanning prospects for their children, however, we all do it. I’m reminded of Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah song, in which he identifies movie stars who are various fractions of Jewish.

What need does it satisfy in us to ethnically or religiously place each other? Why the anxiety? Have we not progressed as much as we think?

When I meet people, I find that I rarely wonder what their ethnic background is. Like many Americans, my first question is about what they do for a living. Many Europeans, however, make fun of Americans for identifying so strongly with their professions and for that being the first question out of their mouths. I never felt so aware of my heritage as I did when I studied abroad in London during college. When I would engage with Europeans, they would ask where I was from, to which I would reply, “America.” And they would almost always follow with, “But, where are you really from?” I then would go into a long history of my family’s descent from Russia and Lithuania to Austria, America and Israel, etc., something I never had to do in the U.S. Europeans were fascinated with my ethnic history. In the U.S., we look, point and decide. Five questions in, the Europeans would ask what I did for a living.

What really defines us and what should define us? As I’ve written in a past Oy! article, as Jews it’s important to hold on to our identity and our heritage. However, are we Jewish first? Are we American first? Such questions define people’s election ballots, spouse selections and various other large life decisions.

I’m not sure there’s an easy answer as to how we should prioritize our various identities. Meanwhile, when I meet people and they give me that funny look after hearing my name, I smile, pause and often prefer not to clarify things, just so I can watch them squirm.


If I were a character in a Keret story…

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Last night acclaimed author and director Etgar Keret offered to transform into a parrot who sits on my shoulder to bear witness to my daily insanities. I didn’t take him up on his offer during the question and answer period after a reading of his short stories at the School of the Art Institute, mostly because I don’t like birds and am not sure that they are allowed by my condo association.

However, the reason I love Keret’s characters is because, if I were one, right then I would have marched up to the stage and watched as he turned into a talking bird and walked out with him. Or perhaps, more likely I would have allowed him to sign a few books for the adoring audience and then, after he grew bright blue and yellow feathers, I would have put him on my shoulder and crossed Columbus Drive.

While some will praise Keret for humanizing a generation of Israelis, my admiration of his work comes from the uninhibited, unapologetic, unconstrained ethos of the characters in his stories. And while his plotlines are unrealistic, they sit in the constraints of realism enough to make the reader relate as well as feel discomfort which inevitably evolves into an intense satiation especially in comparison to the number of words per story.

Keret taps into the darkest and probably funniest parts of the human soul and exposes them in carefully crafted narratives, although last night he said that when he writes he “never knows where the story is going to go.”

He explained that life can be paired down to a “multiple choice experience” and his characters “take their defenses off.”

As a mostly closeted fiction writer, my biggest challenge is not creating open and unrestrained characters, but feeling empowered to share them with anyone for fear of what people will think of them and of course, me.

To some degree that kind of reserve has allowed me to achieve some degree of objective personal and professional success. Had I brought the parrot home with me, he would have liked my condo. Had he come to Shorashim, he would have been reasonably impressed with the work that we do there.

But similarly to my robot-like nature in a poorly conceived attempt at a Latin dance class the other day, sometimes I wonder what it would be like to just forget the years of socialization and let my thoughts run their course wherever they might take me.

But alas, I’m not a character in a Keret story. However, I can read his works and then sit with them in what he describes as the fourth dimension, where what is good and intangible sit with us, like a parrot on our shoulder.



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In July I went on an Alaskan cruise with my family. Our ship stopped in Juneau, Skagway and Victoria, Canada with a beautiful detour into the Tracy Arm Fjord. Whales and glaciers and icebergs, oh my! Alaska is amazing! I highly recommend it. Words can’t really describe it. So, instead, I’ll show you with pictures

Ahhhh-laska photo 1xx

A stream and pond in the rainforest in Juneau

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The Mendenhall Glacier

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Bald eagles!

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Tracy Arm Fjord

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Tracy Arm Fjord again

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An enormous iceberg

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Somewhere at sea

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Our ship parked in Skagway

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What Alaskans wear to keep warm

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Where Alaskans keep their butts

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Flowers in the Butchart Gardens in Victoria

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Butchart Gardens again

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...and again

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Dave Matthews Band vs Yom Kippur

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What would you say? 

Dave Matthews Band vs Yom Kippur photo

Dave Matthews jammin with Rabbi Tachman (right, with white beard)

Not since Sandy Koufax agonized over whether or not to pitch the World Series, has a choice this big been put before the Jewish people.  Yom Kippur 5771:  Should a Jew go to synagogue or to the Dave Matthews Band concert at Wrigley Field?

Ah!  So much to say and I don’t want to two-step around the issue.  First of all, there is no rhyme or reason why they had to plan a concert that I wanted to go to on Yom Kippur.  The grace is gone—concert organizers would have to be under the table dreaming and fool(s) to think that holding a second night concert at a time when I could be eating big eyed fish (and bagels) at a break-the-fast, is a viable solution.  It’s a boys dream that all comes down to nothing.

Of course, it’s a typical situation in these typical times; too many choices, yeah.  Funny the way it is, but it is not easy to be a Jew today.   And though you may wonder why you are different, why you are this way and if you could be anyone other than you, remember two things:   You are who you are and who you are (most likely if you are reading this) is a Jew.

Therefore, on this day, set before you is a choice…

Spend Kol Nidre with DMB, a rock god, the author of some amazing songs, or spend Yom Kippur evening with GOD; The ROCK, and The AUTHOR of EVERYTHING.

Spend Yom Kippur singing along with a band that has had some hits over the last decade or sing along with tunes that have been popular for thousands of years.

Sure, DMB has received some impressive awards in the past like a Grammy and the prestigious NAACP Chairman’s Award.  But really, what is this compared to The ETERNAL, who for countless generations has received daily praise from millions upon millions of people?  Can one really put the two side by side?  It’s as ridiculous as a tripping billy or the proudest monkey.

Still can’t see the light?  Could my personal bias be any clearer?

Dvar Acher—a second approach, DMB VS.YK lyrics:

First, Dave Matthews on Forgiveness:

If I've gone overboard
Then I'm begging you
To forgive me
(from Crash)

Yom Kippur on Forgiveness: 

When we say:  Al Chet, we specify our mistakes in a long list, we say the words together as a community and we pledge to take action to fix those mistakes.  At the conclusion of our prayer we say:

For all these sins, O God of mercy, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement! 

Does DMB do this?  Does he specify his mistakes?  No.  We don’t even know for what he is asking forgiveness!  Is it for dumping raw sewage into our otherwise pristine Chicago River?  Is it for planning two amazing concerts on nights when I can’t attend?  Who knows?  Either way, I am yet to hear his personal apology to me, because I would have gone to Wrigley for sure, and yes, on occasion, I kayak in that river.

One more comparison—What do DMB and YK say about living every moment to the fullest?

I can't believe that we would
Lie in our graves
Wondering if we had
Spent our living days well
I can't believe that we would
Lie in our graves
Dreaming of things that we
Might have been

(from Lie in our Graves)

DMB asks us to value our lives by imaging we are already being dead; lying in our graves.

On Yom Kippur, we too are to imagine ourselves as lying in our graves.   Or to put it more gently, we imagine ourselves as angels for the day.   Like angels, we neither eat, drink, nor have sexual relations, and we refrain from wearing comfortable leather clothing.  We imagine ourselves as angels, as no longer alive, so that we might reflect with a serious sense of urgency on the meaning of our lives so that we can get our priorities straight before it is too late.  Sure, DMB hints at this idea in his song, but we do it better.

Anyway, I could go on and on.  With more blog-space, I might try to find compromise in the space between, like suggesting that you attend a synagogue near Wrigley like Temple Sholom where on Yom Kippur you might hear distant Dave Matthews tunes accompanying Kol Nidre.  Or that you choose the lesser of two evils—skipping break-the-fast to go to DMB after Yom Kippur, but don’t you think eating Wrigley hotdogs would be gross after fasting all day?

And yet, after all this, if you are still debating over going to DMB on Kol Nidre or skipping Yom Kippur altogether, consider these important words:  I call Heaven and earth to witness you this day that I have set before you life or death, blessing or curse; choose life, therefore that you and your descendant may live!  (Ha, ha—how’s that for a guilt trip! Sweet you rock and sweet you roll!)

And finally…as everybody tells you, you pay for what you get and though High Holy Days tickets can sometimes be a bit more expensive than a single Dave Matthews Band concert (but not by much), what you will hopefully get by going to synagogue is a chance to seek up, with a renewed sense of purpose, meaning, inspiration and direction.  You will be partaking in a tradition thousands of years old, joining friends, family and community, and at the same time supporting institutions that transform so many lives for the better.

Truly this decision is so right, and the best of what’s around.  I mean really, what would you say?


Fit With Krit

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Did you ever work out with a personal trainer? Have you ever wondered what type of trainer I am? Watch and learn! This video blog contains a fun, full-body workout, with two trainees—Cheryl and Stefanie, your favorite Oy! editors. Watch them struggle and laugh as we work on posture, abs, arms, cardio, medicine ball, sled…. Enjoy!



Culinary BFFs

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Why you should never put mayo on your corned beef sandwich

Culinary BFFs photo

Classic food pairings are like best friends. Meat and potatoes, spaghetti and meatballs, red beans and rice, chocolate and raspberries, tomatoes and basil…I could go on forever. These classic combos enhance and play off each other on your palate often teasing you into wanting more. Ah, tongue titillating bliss.

As a chef, I often wonder how these food unions are born. Who thought of pairing bistro menu BFFs steak and frites or the Italian combo of sausage and peppers? Was there some culinary deity who deemed that for all of gastronomic eternity we shall eat and love peaches and cream? Maybe so, because the classic parings are truly heavenly.

Sometimes I like to push the envelope and come up with my own blends. But I am always careful. It’s like wearing jewelry. There is a fine line between chic and one piece of bling too many.
I have seen a lot of menu train wrecks from chefs, many of them from TV food personalities trying to be oh so au courant. Before you dip your toe into the menu writing waters you need to look at the highlight of the menu and then pick items that are seasonal, regional and complimentary, not items that are fighting for attention and blowing each other away in your mouth.

Recently, there was a bit of a scuffle regarding our President and a corned beef sandwich with—dare I say it—mayo!

Let’s skip over the part that he actually went to a corporate deli that had practically eaten alive the “revered Jewish deli institution” of Rascal House, as David Sax put it in “Save the Deli.” Rather, let’s focus on the fact that a classic Jewish amalgamation of corned beef and mustard on rye was violated in a most sacrilegious way. Don’t you know, Mr. President, that when someone orders a corned beef sandwich with mayonnaise, somewhere a Jewish mother cries?

As it turns out, the shanda sandwich Obama ordered was actually for a congressman he was dining with. Seems that mayo-gate is not so bad after all. Or is it? Jew or not, President or not, as a chef and am really, really upset by this.

I personally have “freaked out” at customers when asked for a side of white rice to go with a steak. Come on—a steak crackling and sizzling right off the grill is screaming for a potato of some kind. And some crispy, salty onions too!

There was the time a regular customer asked for ketchup to go with his Boeuf Bourguignon. After I beheaded the poor innocent waiter for asking for the offending item, I tongue-lashed the customer and then cried in the cooler. The Humanity!

Why, if I were behind the counter at the corporate deli, President or not, I would have advised him of the sandwich snafu. You cannot just go around doing things like that. It is as weird as clashing colors or atonal music. It’s not natural. It’s not right.

The point here is that some things are meant to go together. It’s natural, it’s beshert. We should celebrate and enjoy classic combinations. And if you can’t do that, at least get the mayo on the side.


Cheers! Chicago: A toast to our mentors and teachers

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We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.
~ Winston Churchill

All my life, I have been privileged to meet and interact with some amazing people. From a young age, I understood what it meant to have someone looking out for you, trying to do what’s best for you. Now that I find myself in the position of mentor, I thought I’d take a look back and raise a glass to the important role models and mentors in my life:

Of course, our parents are, in a way, our first and most present mentors by default. They are responsible for bringing us up from childhood into adulthood, guiding us along the way. They show us right from wrong, good from bad, and how to lead a good life, and they ask for nothing in return except for us to learn from their example and to grow with each lesson they teach. This is why we owe so much to our parents in our early stages of life; without their guidance, experience and knowledge about life lessons and how to lead a good life, we would all be lost or scrambling for answers trying to figure things out on our own.

In my opinion, mentors and teachers have a unique and wonderful opportunity to change people’s lives for the better. They mold young minds and guide wayward souls towards whatever goals and dreams their students might have. My parents were wonderful mentors and continue to be to this day, but there have been several others along the way to whom I owe so much gratitude.

My rabbi, Michael Siegel, is a wonderful example of how being a mentor is so important in a young child’s life. His love for Judaism and eagerness to share it was an amazing experience and showed me how important it is to take the time to teach our young ones. My second and third grade Hebrew teacher at BZAEDS, Geveret Greenberg, who still teaches there to this day, was the one who first introduced me to my love for the Hebrew language. She nurtured my natural talent for languages at an early age and taught me to pursue the things I love and to make it fun, exciting and enjoyable. Without her to guide me at such a young age, I don’t know if I would feel the same way about Hebrew.

The same nurture of talent and potential found me when I attended my first mixology academy and met the incomparable Bridget Albert. Without her patience, guidance and love for what she was doing, I would not have felt nearly as inspired and capable as a bartender/mixologist as I do now. I owe a lot to her for developing my passion and creativity for crafting top quality cocktails and the enjoyment I get from it.

As a Bar and Bat Mitzvah tutor, I am able to not only teach young children about the lessons and significance about the Tanach, but also to show them how capable they are of learning these lessons and taking them into action. I have personally seen the transformation of many of my students throughout my mentoring, from shy and unsure children into confident, capable young men and women. There is no greater feeling on earth than seeing your efforts and hard work in mentoring a child come to fruition. Sitting up there on the bimah, watching them become the men and women they have aspired and prepared to be for nearly a year of their lives, is a feeling that is indescribable (and very emotional, to say the least). Dick Gregory, a famous comedian and civil rights activist, once said it best when he said, “One of the things I keep learning is that the secret of being happy is doing things for other people.” I believe it’s the feeling of selflessness, coupled with observing the growth and ultimate accomplishment and success of that student, which truly embodies his—and my—idea of true happiness.

This year, along with continuing as a Bar and Bat Mitzvah tutor, I have the pleasure of being Anshe Emet’s USY advisor. I am really looking forward to the amazing opportunities it will give me to again be a positive and guiding force in a young person’s life, to show them their bright futures and to tap into their unlimited source of potential. I look forward to both the challenges and the rewards of mentoring in this setting, and only hope that my presence and example will serve them well as they move into adulthood.

So let’s raise our glasses of wine, beer, or grape juice and toast our mentors and teachers. Without them, the world would be a much darker place. With them, anything is possible. As Ghandi put it, “Be the change you want to see in the world,” and I couldn’t agree more.



Things my Jewish grandma says…

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Things my Jewish grandma says photo

Grandma Sally, starting me off on the right foot from a very young age

This is the first post of a new, continuing Oy! series, Things my Jewish Grandma says…If you have a Jewish grandma who says funny things, tell us about her in the comments section below or email us at  info@oychicago.com .

Grandma Sally is 90 years old.  She has accrued a lifetime’s worth of wisdom, which she is only to happy to share in the form of unsolicited advice.  Truth be told, what she says oftentimes makes sense.  She simply has an unintentionally funny way of getting her point across.  Here are just a few of Grandma Sally’s pearls of wisdom:

Never smoke a cigarette if it doesn’t have a name written on it.

--Grandma Sally doled out this practical advice to each child and grandchild as we headed off to college.  With visions of Reefer Madness dancing in her brain, she clearly was more troubled by the thought that her progeny might join a hippie commune than the thought of us smoking an arguably more life-threatening cigarette.

Watch out for California girls that tell you they’re on the pill…

--As my little brother prepared for his move to San Francisco, “the land of fruits and nuts” as Grandma calls it, she pulled him aside to offer this vague advice.  The incomplete thought implies that California girls, unlike the wholesome Illinois variety, are liars, and that alternative forms of contraception should be employed.  Needless to say, Andy didn’t stick around to hear the rest of the advice.

If you go bowling with a boy, let him win because he will feel special.

--Women’s lib be damned.  Grandma Sally believes men have fragile egos, and a loss at the bowling alley would likely mean no trip down the aisle.  Why risk our chance to land a perfect mensch just because we're feeling competitive?


Advice for college

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Advice for college photo

I have three cousins and 30 former students who are going to be freshmen in college next month.

If they were to ask me for advice, this is what I would tell them.


Hi (excited high school graduate). Your classes that you registered for sound great. I also wasn’t a great (insert subject) student and took (insert course). It turned out okay, but I got a lot of extra help—they have help sessions. I suggest you go to as many as possible. I ended up with a B- in the class, and that was one of my lowest grades in college, but I felt great satisfaction after finishing a course that was so hard for me.

The courses sound awesome. (Language you didn’t pass out of) will seem really basic at first, but it gets hard quickly, so just go with the easiness and try and improve your skills. I was a lazy ass my first year and got burned my second year of (said language) because it got much harder.

Go to your professors’ office hours. Introduce yourself. Go back again. Don’t stalk though. It helps your grade in the end and if you ever need a recommendation, they know who you are.

Read everything they assign even though most people won’t. Also, as a freshman you will have a ton of free time, so instead of being bored or getting into something you shouldn’t, read for your classes. Remember, you’re paying for your education so you might as well learn something and you’ll do better on the exams and sound smarter when you talk during class or when you meet with your professors during office hours.

Go to that library orientation that you’re going to want to not go to. You may think you know everything about research and computers, but you don’t.

If you are not going to celebrate Shabbat, study on Friday before everyone goes out at night or pregames. It’s a great little chunk where there’s not a lot to do on campus, it’s quiet, and you can get a lot done.

Also, do your best. Grades do count in college. Because if you do well, you can stave off the real world and go to a good graduate school and even get scholarships.

Health and Safety

Commit to going to the gym 3-4 days a week. The gym at (university) is AMAZING and you’re already paying for it with your student fees. If you do have to pay something, it’s nominal.  When you leave college, a gym membership can cost thousands of dollars. Working out will make you feel better and is good for your health. You don’t have to be the most in shape person in the world, but getting your heart rate up is a good thing. You’ll reduce your stress load, etc.

Only order the pizza/breadsticks thing maybe once a week. Less is better. The freshman 15 is no joke. You can use your time at (university) to become healthy. I’m not saying lose weight, but no need to ingest all that fat and cholesterol into your system. But you do want to treat yourself once in a while.

If you’re having issues see a therapist at school. Again, it’s cheap and you might as well deal with stuff before you get into the real world and it’s a lot harder and more expensive.

When you are at a party, always have a buddy, someone you come and leave with. Watch out for each other: having a friend around is your best protection against date rape. Agree not to leave without each other. Date rape is real and usually happens when someone is wasted. Speaking of wasted, don’t drink and drive, and don’t get in a car with someone driving drunk. People don’t drive better drunk in college.

Condoms, condoms, condoms. With that said, if you’re not having sex yet, don’t feel pressured to lose your virginity. Screw that. You’ll have sex when you’re good and ready. I have several friends who didn’t start having sex until they graduated college and they are perfectly normal, happy people.

Yes, pot is illegal, but it isn't going to kill you unless you drive or something. But it might make you waste a lot of time if you're so spaced out that you won't do as well in school. Anything beyond pot could cause
damage of some sort, usually emotional and definitely financial and possibly legal. You're better off just avoiding drugs.

Spend 30 minutes with your roommate(s) cleaning your room each week. Having a clean place to live will help you emotionally and if someone comes over, you don’t want them to have sit on three-week old pizza boxes.


Sit down with your parent(s) to figure out a realistic budget. There are so many computer programs and apps you can use to help you stick to it.

Learn how to balance a checkbook. 



Don’t feel that you have to join a fraternity or sorority. If you want to, fine, but it’s not a necessity. If you don’t get accepted, it probably wasn’t the place for you anyways, and instead of being angry, be thankful.

Join a club or two, get involved, but remember you’re there to be a student. However, a club of some sort is a great way to make friends. And remember, a club or organization is as cool as you say or think it is. Cool is relative.

You’re going to come across ethical situations. If your instinct is that it’s wrong, then it probably is wrong. You have a good core. Look to it when you have a dilemma. If you have to rationalize something to go through with it, then you probably shouldn’t be doing it.

Don’t put anything in writing that you wouldn’t want on the front page of the Google search engine. Seriously. You’re going to get pissed off at people. You’re going to fall in love with people. Before sending out that fuck you or I love you email, wait 24 hours and see if you still think it’s a good idea. Anything can wait 24 hours, especially when you know it can be forwarded to half the world.

Employers are looking at Facebook etc., and you don’t want to lose an opportunity because you felt the need to post a photograph of you downing a shot or posing half naked. Also, if someone suggests busting out a flip cam during a makeout session, it’s time to race out of the room.

One last thing. College is not utopia. We old folks make it sound like that, but I shed plenty of tears during my four years. Not every day was good. However, it’s the only time in your life where you will get to act like an adult without any of the responsibilities of an adult. So that’s as close to Eden as any of us will ever really get.

Have a great year!


The Top 18 Jewish Movie Soundtracks (Volume 2)

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As promised, here are more Jewish movies with great soundtracks… this time consisting of songs previously released, then compiled just for the occasion of the movie. The nice thing about these compilations is that they offer music you might have a harder time finding, or getting into, otherwise. Again, they are presented chronologically:

1. The Graduate (1967)
It is never stated plainly that Benjamin and his folks are Jewish, but many film scholars believe they are. And since that means I get to mention a soundtrack full of Simon and Garfunkel’s greatest hits, I’ll agree. Here are “Sounds of Silence,” “Scarborough Fair,” and the indelible “Mrs. Robinson.” The music for the older generation was written by Jewish jazz composer Dave Grusin, who later arranged the horns on Simon’s hit “Late in the Evening.”

2. Radio Days (1974)
Woody Allen’s movies are always full of great old-timey songs. But this movie is set when radio was king. Allen loads the soundtrack with nearly 50 songs, from the sublime— “In the Mood,” “Begin the Beguine,”— to the ridiculous: “The Donkey Serende” and “Pistol Packin’ Mama.” Many of the songs here are Cole Porter’s, but many are by Jewish Tin Pan Alley greats: Gus Kahn, Jule Styne, Frank Loesser, et al. Also on display are the clarinet pyrotechnics of Jewish bandleaders Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, and the sweet songbird stylings of Mia Farrow.

3. Dirty Dancing (1987)
A movie about a dance instructor better bring it when it comes to the music. “The kids” danced to “Be My Baby” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry”… and dirty-danced to “Do You Love Me,” and “Love Man.” Meanwhile, their parents learned the proper steps to the foxtrot and waltz. (Sadly, the songs written in the ’80s themselves— “Hungry Eyes,” “She’s Like the Wind,” and “The Time of My Life”— show just how badly the music had slipped backward by then.)

4. When Harry Met Sally… (1989)
Jazz standards again, the twist this time that they are performed by Harry Connick, Jr. These are songs by the Gershwins, Rogers and Hart, and Ellington, and made famous by Sinatra, Armstrong, and Fitzgerald and repopularized thanks to this soundtrack. Here also are “Winter Wonderland” by performed by Ray Charles, and “Surrey With a Fringe On Top” from Oklahoma performed… by Harry and Sally.

5. Bugsy (1991)
A movie set in Vegas would have a Rat-Pack soundtrack, but the events of this movie are those that led to the creation of the “adult Disneyland” itself. So yes, more standards, but this time with an emphasis on slower, more intense tracks performed by sensuous chanteuses like Peggy Lee, Jo Stafford, and Margaret Whiting. “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Moonlight in Vermont,”  “Slow Boat to China,” and “Why Don’t You Do Right?” replace the upbeat tracks supporting the comedies in this list.

6. School Ties (1992)
Rock ’n’ roll cajoled its devilish way even into the insular world of this New England prep school. Early rock classics like “Rock Around the Clock,” “Smokey Joe’s Café,” and “Earth Angel” began to seep from beneath dorm room doors along with illicit cigarette smoke and to roil chaperones at sock-hops. As in The Graduate, these songs mark the line between generations, the adults still savoring “Three Coins in the Fountain” and “Isn’t it Romantic.”

7. Shine (1996) 
As befitting a film about a gifted classical pianist, the soundtrack bursts with Chopin, Liszt, Vivaldi, Beethoven… and the Rachmaninoff pieces that proved both his blessing and curse. The pianist in question is David Helfgott, and it is in fact his piano playing heard on the soundtrack. (For the record, Helfgott’s sister wrote a book refuting the portrayal of her father in the movie.)

8. Pi (1998)
A mathematician is driven slowly mad by the possiblity that he might be able to calculate the final digit of pi… and by those— from stockbrokers to kabbalists— insisting he reveal it to them. He builds a supercomputer to help him, so the soundtrack is appropritaely provided by electronica standbys like Orbital and Aphex Twin. Massive Attack provides the creeping paranoia. (Director Darren Aronofsky’s latest is The Wrestler.)

9. Wet Hot American Summer (2001)
It’s American summer camp, it’s summertime, and it’s the 1980s. So we’re talking Foreigner, KISS, Rick Springfield, Kenny Loggins… even Loverboy and Jefferson Starship. Pass the bug juice and look out for water balloons.

10. The Pianist (2002)
Another Jewish pianist in a dangerous situation, only this time not caused by a demanding father but “Der Furor” himself. Chopin, Beethoven, and Bach are what the pianist wants to play, but we also hear the klezmer and Polish songs that he heard as a child. The klezmer piece is played by the primier British klez ensemble, The Burning Bush.

11. American Splendor (2003)
Harvey Pekar, who just died in July, might have made his name with his autobiographical graphic novels, but he was also a renowned collector and critic of blues recordings. The music here ranges from the expected standards to "Escape (The Piña Colada Song) to rock by The Pretenders and The Clash. But what makes this soundtrack special are the tracks by blues shouter Jay McShann and by Pekar’s friend and collaborator, illustrator Robert Crumb, who has a roots music ensemble on the side: R. Crumb and His Cheap Suit Serenaders.

12. Garden State (2004)
Emo music goes with mumblecore movies like warm applesauce with cold latkes. Coldplay, Nick Drake, Iron & Wine, and The Shins provide the musical backing for this romantic-not-comedy. Special appearances— also in shoe-gaze mode— are made by Lionel Richie, Colin Hay (of Men at Work), and the original sad boys of popular music: Simon and Garfunkel.

13. Everything Is Illuminated (2005)
A young American Jew travels back to the Old Country to trace his roots. But the Old Country isn’t only old, which is why the soundtrack heavily features Gogol Bordello, a band that jazzily deconstructs traditional Balkan melodies and modes. Other Central-to-Eastern European bands contribute tracks like “Zvezda Rok-n-Rolla.” Fans of Balkan Beat Box and Golem will enjoy.

14. The Squid and the Whale (2005)
If “pop” is short for “popular music,” then this is “un-pop,” with folkies like Bert Jansch and the McGarrigle sisters, jokers like Loudon Wainwright III, and cult faves like Tangerine Dream and The Feelies. So as to not entirely alienate everyone by presenting only unfamiliar music, Lou Reed, Pink Floyd, The Cars, and even Bryan Adams show up. Oh, and you know that Train song that keeps going on about a band called Mr. Mister? They actually existed, and one of their songs is on here. Plus, a song from Schoolhouse Rock!

15. When Do We Eat? (2005)
Moses’ two tablets are no match for the tablets of E a kid plops in his dad’s Seder wine. This is the only soundtrack to a mainstream Jewish movie consisting of honest-to-Hashem Jewish songs. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and his daughter Neshama contribute tracks. So do the Phish-goes-Sephardic acts RebbeSoul, Innasense, and C. Lanzbom (of Soulfarm). There are rap tracks by Etan G and Chutzpah, which is unfortunate as there are far better Jewish-rap acts out there. But the rest of the tracks are by Mark Adler, who also did the soundtracks to The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Arthur Miller’s Focus, and more recently Bottle Shock.

16. Margot at the Wedding (2007)
You may know the bands, but you probably don’t know the songs: Steve Miller’s “Dear Mary,” Blondie’s “Union City Blue,” Donovan’s “Teen Angel,” Alice Cooper’s “You and Me,” Fleetwood Mac’s “That’s All for Everyone.” Also, remember Dinosaur Jr., X, Gilbert O’Sullivan, and the dB’s? Somebody did. Stephen Bishop’s “On and On” is here, too; you know his voice from the Tootsie soundtrack.

17. Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist (2008)
He’s in a band. Her dad’s a rock producer. They are going to a concert. Music is very important to these characters, but how’s the music in the film? Indie-licious. An amazing 37 songs are crammed into the movie’s run-time: Devandra Banhart, Bishop Allen, Vampire Weekend, We Are Scientists, Band of Horses, The National, Tapes’n Tapes, Modest Mouse… it’s like a Pitchfork Festival in your pocket. For contrast, there are tracks by Billy Joel, Dusty Springfield, and The Spice Girls.

18. Taking Woodstock (2009)
Break out the tie-dye for this, story of how some hippie Jews threw the greatest rock party ever. The soundtrack features the usual suspects: The Dead, Dylan, Janis, CSN, The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Ravi Shankar… plus folkies like Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, Richie Havens, Tim Hardin, and Simon and Garfunkel. Don’t worry, bubbeleh, there's a Yiddish song in there, too.


Eight months

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At eight months, paper is a delicious delicacy.

Eight months can go by in a flash. As an adult, each birthday seems to come more quickly than the one before, even though they are 12 months apart, every time. Couples are engaged for an average of one full year before their wedding. Pregnancy is (generally) 40 weeks, or about nine months. I’ve been working at my job for an eight month stretch ten times over, but it often seems like just yesterday that I started.

Despite its brevity, the past eight months have altered my life forever.

My daughters Autumn and Violet are eight months old. They have officially been living in this world longer than they were growing inside me as Bug and Sprout. They are reminders of just how much can be accomplished in eight months.

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Violet (Sprout) and Autumn (Bug) at two months.

Since last December, they have learned to continuously breathe on their own. That first month at home filled with the randomly piercing alarms of the apnea monitors feels (THANK GOD) far, far away.

They have graduated from being nourished through an IV, to receiving breast milk through a tube, then nursing and drinking by bottle, and now eating some solid foods and slowly figuring out the sippy cup, even if half the water ends up on the floor.

They have quadrupled their body weight.

They have slept a lot, and in many places. They have slept in the NICU incubators, in the hospital nursery basinets, swaddled on our striped living room chairs, snuggled in bed with their mommies, sharing one crib in their nursery, and now in their own cribs, side-by-side.

They have begun their Jewish education. Autumn slept and Violet screamed through a lovely naming ceremony led by their Zayde at the synagogue where I grew up. Thanks to the first book from the PJ Library Goodnight Sh’ma , the girls hear the Sh’ma every night before bed as part of their bedtime routine.

In the past eight months they have been given their first haircuts, college savings accounts, and the largest hand-made sweater collection I can imagine. The have been seen by more doctors than I have in my entire life.

Somehow they have caught up developmentally from their adjusted age of six and a half months, to doing all the things an eight month old does—crawling, standing with assistance, babbling, eating, waving. It seems that every day a new skill is learned and discoveries are made.

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Autumn and Violet in the birthday chair at five months.

I know that as babies, we grow at a faster rate than any other time of life, but if they can be doing so much it makes me wonder what I can accomplish in eight months.

Looking back, the past eight months have taught me countless lessons. I now understand the value of getting one hour of uninterrupted sleep. I can eat an entire meal in five minutes or less. I can hold Violet while standing on one foot, my other foot rhythmically rocking Autumn in the bouncy seat, while placing a diapers.com order on my phone, and keeping my eye on the warming milk to make sure it does not overheat. I have learned that any shyness or anxiety I once had about what others might think disappears the minute I need to advocate for my children, call the health insurance company for the twentieth time (that week), or open up sealed boxes of stroller connectors and try them out in the middle of the Babies-R-Us because before purchasing, I need to know if they will actually work to link two umbrella strollers together and that said strollers will still fit through a doorway (they do not).

So what do the next eight months hold? What do I hope to accomplish by next April?  For the girls, I want to give them lots of new experiences like music and swimming classes, museum visits, and trips to visit family. I want to be less anxious about messing up a naptime and more comfortable carting them both around by myself. Personally, I would like to do more creative stuff: finish my sketchbook for The Sketchbook Project, take another class at StoryStudio (the first one was great and inspired me to write this post), and play more cello concerts for A & V.

This is just a start and I’m sure new goals will emerge in the next eight months, but I am already inspired by my daughters—to learn more, grow more, open up more, dive in more, live more. So thank you Autumn and Violet, for making my life so much richer and pushing me further than anyone else would be able to do.

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Smiling and focused: two classic looks from Miss A and Miss V.


A self-guiding tour of the Mediterranean

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In July, Esther was just setting off for her great Mediterranean adventure. She has yet to sort through her 1,000+ photos (no joke!), but she definitely has plenty to say about the trip. While her previous visits to Europe have been full of jaw-dropping cathedrals and art museums, she and her friend decided to see another, more familiar side of the Old World.

Toledo, Spain

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We found ourselves in the Jewish Quarter by accident: one tight medieval street led to another, and suddenly we spotted Calle de Samuel Levi—where else could we be? Turn left at the monastery and you see, above a high stone wall, a sign for Museo Sefardi, Sinagoga del Transito. Across the street was a little park, which ended with the most extraordinary lookout over the river, with a cliff on the other side. The place was special. You didn’t want to leave and you didn’t want to say anything. An Austrian traveler asked us to take her photo there, because she “love[s] the way the place makes you feel.”

We went to the museum the next day. The synagogue was built in 1366, repurposed as a church after the Expulsion, and restored as a Jewish site in the early 20th century, after long years in disrepair. The remnants of this great Sephardic temple were breathtaking. The exhibit itself, however, was off somehow. It wasn’t until I started reading the English translations it hit me: Spanish Jewry was being framed as a strange, dead culture just beyond the grasp of contemporary understanding.

The Jewish story was not presented by Jews or for Jews, and it showed. Case upon case displayed artifacts: small oil lamps from Israel, Roman coins from the age of Herod, shards of pottery with menorah reliefs, a glowing account of Toledo Jews by the Umayyid ruler; at the end of the small corridor was an Edict of Expulsion. History stopped in 1492, and save for some marriage costumes from the 19th century and a collection of modern religious implements (yadayim, siddurim, mezzuzot, ketubim), you’d never think another Jew had been spotted in Spain since. The text took no responsibility for the Expulsion, and made no mention of contemporary Jewry, or what the lessons of intolerance might teach us. According to this exhibit, the Jews had no bearing on modern Spain. These artifacts were a collection of curiosities.

At its height, the Jewish community in Toledo numbered in the thousands. We asked a docent how many Jews lived here now. One family, she told us.

Outside, in the rest of the city, every tourist trap is brimming with Judaica. Stars of David and menorahs are everywhere. You can buy beautiful Jewish-themed engraved woodwork and painted tiles and silver jewelry and damescene pottery. Toledo calls itself the Universal City, in honor of the coexistence of the three Abrahamic religions within its boundaries. When we walked by the site of the Jewish Information Center, it was shuttered and empty, anti-Semitic graffiti (likely from the time of Operation Cast Lead) still legible on its walls.

Rome, Italy

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Everyone in Italy asked me if I was Italian (or they did before I opened my mouth and revealed my rusty command of the language). I always answered that I was American, but in Florence, the man at the leather shop next to Santa Croce took one look at me and asked if I was Jewish. He and his family, who owned the shop, were Jews from Morocco and Lebanon. He wanted to know where my family was from; I told him Lithuania, but with a caveat of an oral account of being Spanish or Italian, once upon a time. My grandmother’s last name was Sabad. “That’s a very Sephardic name,” he said, nodding.

Rome is small. The guidebooks are terrifying, because the options seem endless, but in the central city, nothing is very far apart. We set out from our hostel near the train station, and fifteen minutes later we caught glimpses of the Coliseum between streets. The Jewish Ghetto is right on the Tiber. The walls and gates are long gone, as are the original buildings and layout (gleefully destroyed after 1870, the year of the Emancipation of Roman Jews, the last in Italy still so confined). Four kosher restaurants occupy a street behind the main synagogue. We chose one at random; I ate the best artichoke I’ve ever had in my life, and that was just the appetizer. Our waiter was an Egyptian Jew named Shiri, and possibly the most gorgeous human being I’d ever seen up close.

At the Museo Ebraico, also the home of a living community, the security was tight: the memory of a terrorist attack in 1982 that killed a toddler has remained fresh. We had to search for an entrance, go through checkpoints, and we weren’t allowed to take photos of certain areas. The ticket included a mandatory guided tour; it was the only way to see the Tempio Maggiore, another triumphal edifice built high in 1904.

The Museo Ebraico was a vibrant experience, a proud display of points along a continuous Jewish experience. We learned that there are about 35,000 Jews in Italy, about 14,000 of whom live in Rome. About 4,000 of them are Libyan Jews who fled Tripoli after pogroms in response to the 1967 War. In the collection we saw incredible embroidered Torah covers, oral histories from locals, original copies of papal edicts outlining the rights of Roman Jews, evidence of Jews in Classical Rome, fascist-era letters and propaganda—clearly the list goes on.

I was struck by the weight the museum gave the Holocaust. Certainly it was a feature: one plaque in the ghetto lists the names of Jewish Italians who died fighting in the World Wars; another soberly memorializes the 235 students at this school who were rounded up and deported to Auschwitz. Most haunting is the Nazi ransom on Jewish Romans, in which they promised safety in exchange for 110 pounds of gold, if it could be collected in 48 hours. Needless to say, the pact was not honored. Still, there is a joyous undercurrent to the Museo Ebraico; the most-mentioned historical event is not the Shoah but the abolition of the ghetto.

Jerusalem, Israel

Within minutes of reuniting with my aunt and uncle, whom I had not seen since 1991, I was laughing. My mom and my aunt insist they are very different people, but I saw them in each other: the way they moved, the way they held their hands, the way their faces changed as they listened and spoke. We spent a lot of time just talking and hanging out—in fact, one evening my aunt and I were up until 2 a.m., rambling like friends in a freshman dorm. My uncle smiled and reminded me that she doesn’t have a chance to gab like this: she doesn’t have any daughters.

My cousin was supposed to meet us at the Central Bus Station, but it was his girlfriend who showed up to collect us. I fell in love with her in about five minutes. Probably half my conversations with my aunt included her wondering when he would propose, and why he hadn’t yet. The four of us went out the night we arrived, my cousin, his girlfriend, my friend and me. I had sachlab and quickly fell in love with that too. By nature I’m a night owl, and even though we’d had a long day in transit, I thought I could get used to this long, late schedule.

We took it easy in Israel, after two breakneck weeks in Italy and Spain. We’d wake up, my aunt would feed us (and feed us… and feed us!), and then we would catch a bus, to see the Old City or the Dead Sea or wherever else we were headed that day. For whatever reason, I was more content to just hang out than actively record this leg of the trip, so the pictures I have of Israel are mostly of the Wadi David. In the evenings we’d have more meals and more conversation. Not only was it a relief after all that travel, but I began to feel quite close to my aunt and uncle and cousin. We all got along incredibly well, and I found myself wishing we could see each other more often.

Our last full day was a Saturday. We had seats on a 1 a.m. sherut taxi to the airport; I had to constantly refrain from thinking of it as a cheroot, which is a kind of cigar. I’m not used to consciously, regularly setting aside a day for relaxation. At home, Saturday is the day I get things accomplished, like writing or decorating or grocery shopping. My cousin and his girlfriend invited us to her apartment for the afternoon: she had assembled a gorgeous picnic, which we took at a little park nearby. It was quiet and peaceful, and after the food we all just lay there in the shade of the pines. I could get used to this too, I thought.

Three days after we left Jerusalem, my cousin asked his girlfriend to marry him. My aunt, of course, was jokingly aggravated that he hadn’t done so while we were there, so we could have had a party, but hey, all’s well that ends well. If schedules and plane tickets work out, there are worse reasons to visit than for a fabulously well-matched wedding.

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Kindling change

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Seven months ago, my life changed.

Now usually when you hear someone say that, you immediately think, “They went through a tragedy!” or “They moved to a new place!” or “Something monumental occurred in their life!” But nothing tragic, or monumental, changed, or happened, to me. It was actually something quite small that changed—or rather, I acquired something small that changed—my life as I knew it.

I got an Amazon Kindle for Chanukah.

All right, while this may not sound like a huge life-changing event, let me explain my reasoning behind this. I am a huge reader. Not like a normal person who likes to read a lot. Oh no, I read way beyond the normal amount. So much that when I was younger my parents would punish me by taking away my books. So much that sometimes work, chores, even going out with friends can all take a backseat when it comes to reading. Because when I start a new book, you can bet I won’t be setting it down until I finish it. I usually stay up the whole night until I finish a book. I’m not patient enough to “save it for later” like my parents—disgruntled over how much I spend on books—want me to. I devour books like a starved human presented with a feast.

Now this can be an issue some…all right, most…of the time. Not only do I blow through my money buying the next book in a series as soon as it comes out (meaning the hardcover, thus more expensive) but also when I’m finished reading my books, where do they go?

I used to put them on my bookshelf in my room, but I ran out of space. So now I have boxes upon boxes of books going into storage. I could sell them, but I also like to reread my books over and over (so much that I can probably recite all my books by heart…remember, I did say this was not normal…). Another space problem comes from going on vacation. I once read 25 books while on a two-week vacation with my family. And most of those books were bought while on said vacation. So coming home, I had about 23 extra books to bring home. That’s like a whole other suitcase that I DIDN’T have at my disposal.

I could get books from the library, but then my issues of wanting to reread books and not being able to conveniently get more while on vacation pop up again.

Now that I’ve explained a little better, hopefully you can see how receiving an e-reader like the Amazon Kindle can change my life. Because it did.

Gone were the days that I had to drive to the bookstore to buy a hardcover book to find out “What happens next?!?” Gone were the days where I had to lug around an extra 20 pounds in my suitcase. Gone were the days when I had a bulging purse, trying to sneak a book wherever I was going.

This small, .3 inch thick, 10.2-ounce piece of plastic completely revolutionized my life.

While it solved most of my previous problems my reading-addiction presented, it did create some new ones. Like further enabling my reading-addiction.

Amazon has this neat little feature where if you want a new book, you don’t even need to go to a computer. Nope, all you have to do is flip on the Wifi on your Kindle, search through the 620,000+ books Amazon has in digital form, and click the Buy button. In a few seconds, you hold in your hands a whole new book. And just like that, your bank account loses a little bit of substance.

Since there is little effort needed to buy a new book, I sometimes forget that by clicking that little rectangular Buy button, I’m actually spending real, live cash money. I forget it’s not free. And that’s when I start racking up the expenses. And that’s when I get angry calls from my mom wondering what in the world I keep buying from Amazon everyday. And that’s when I go broke.

I guess there really is no solution to my “problem” besides quitting cold turkey—which is NEVER going to happen. All I can say is my Kindle has slowly become my most prized possession. You can have all your iPads and nooks and Alex eReaders, just leave me with my sweet and simple Kindle…and my bank account.


Tales of a Rabbi’s Kid

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Trip to Paris with my dad

I’m an RK.  That’s right.  My dad is a rabbi which makes me a “Rabbi’s Kid,” or an RK, as we like to call ourselves.  I didn’t always like having this as part of my identity (but I’ve since changed my mind).  The response I’ve always received when people learn this about me is fascinating.  When it first comes up, people look at you a little differently.

“So, are you really religious?”

“Do you know the Torah by heart?”

“I didn’t realize rabbis could have kids…” (that was always my favorite).

There is some sort of awe-inspiring respect that most people have for rabbis that I just don’t get.  It’s just like your dad being a lawyer, or a doctor, or a plumber.  All dads have jobs, but when they come home, they’re just dad.

My dad is an awesome rabbi.  He’s been at the same small congregation in Muskegon, MI for 34 years.  He’ll deny that he’s anything special, but ask anyone in the Muskegon community, Jewish or not, and not only do they know him, but their eyes light up and have something kind and wonderful to say about him.  Yup, that’s my dad.

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Watching fireworks at Disneyland

Sounds wonderful now, but if only people knew what it was really like growing up as the rabbi’s kid in a small congregation of about 50 families. Shabbat, which I now consider a relaxing, joyous, and prized weekly occurrence, was dreaded.

From the outside, it probably looked like a nice family dinner followed by services, the Alpert family sitting in the front row while my dad stood before the congregation.  On the inside, it was a stressful, scarfed-down meal followed by a frantic rush to get to the synagogue to set up (no custodian or office staff—Rabbi Dad had to be the first there to unlock the doors).

Once there, we would usually draw a crowd of 8-12 and my siblings and I were the only youngins under the age of 30.  We’d have to sit through a service we never understood, the same one every week, and then socialize with the grown-ups after.  All this on Friday nights, while our peers were off at the movies, at football games or hanging out with friends.

We would do what we could to get out of it (sorry Mom and Dad, we really weren’t sick that many Friday nights), but our guilty consciences always brought us back week after week.

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What eight-year-old Aleza didn’t understand then was that those Friday nights made us a community, and that is what Shabbat is all about.  It wasn’t until I left home that I really began to appreciate Shabbat.  I began to see it as a break from the rest of the week.  It’s what I like to consider my weekly spiritual deep breath; it doesn’t matter how I celebrate, as long as I take time to relax.

While I felt tortured when I was younger, I now see the strength and love that comes from my Jewish family in Muskegon.  We may be small, but we are mighty.  These people have watched me grow, and I feel like they consider me one of their own daughters.

While-eight-year old Aleza wanted to be a “normal” kid, I wouldn’t trade anything for the sense of community I have from my hometown.  Now, I am proud to be a Rabbi’s Kid and there is no other place I’d want to be for any Jewish holiday than Muskegon, MI sitting in the front row watching my dad lead a congregation of people who love him and his family.

This article was originally posted in  Alef: The NEXT Converstion , project from  Birthright Israel NEXT .   Click here  to read other Shabbat themed articles.


If you can’t meet ‘em, join ‘em

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If you’re looking to meet new people, the most common advice you’re likely to receive is to “join.” Sign up for mixers! Go to a meetup! Enroll in a class! Before I knew any better, I doled out said advice on my very own blog.

Now I know better.

It’s not that joining is a bad idea, but the advice is misleading. It’s only half the story. A more appropriate suggestion would be to “Join a [insert activity here].” Because you can’t sign up for just anything. At least not if you want to meet people quickly. Some activities don’t lend themselves to interaction. Take my Cardio Hip Hop class. I relished the hour I spent dancing and sweating, but the class consisted of showing up, learning a routine, and leaving. There was no partner boogie or getting-to-know-you games. To meet someone I’d have to do the work myself, and avoiding that work is precisely why I signed up in the first place.

If I’m paying to join something with the primary goal of meeting people, I want someone else to do the introduction legwork. So no, Cardio Hip Hop is not the perfect option for meeting new people. Nor is yoga.

You know what is? Improv.

Yup, that’s right. I’m taking an improv class. I’m pretty embarrassed to share this since I’m not a performer. I can come up with a witty one-liner…sometimes…but when it comes to creating and inhabiting another character? Not really my thing. A few weeks ago I was given an action and emotion: “You’re raking leaves, and you’re feisty,” my teacher said. “And no talking. Go.” Um, have you ever tried to silently rake leaves fiestily? Surprise! I wasn’t very good at it. Whatever. I get to play make believe for 2.5 hours and it’s the perfect forum to make new friends because I’m forced to open up, embrace the ensemble, and get to know my classmates.

Never in a million years would I have taken an improv class if I wasn’t dedicated to this search. Just thinking about it makes me awkward. But after two people said I had to try it, I did. Often it’s not so much about signing up for what you love as it is joining that which you’re willing to try and will force you to interact with other human beings.

Another common “joining” suggestion is religious groups. I’m Jewish, but I wouldn’t count myself as religious. I’m nervous that my presence at a Jewish mixer would be suspect. Like Hugh Grant in About a Boy when he joins a single parents support group to meet hot moms, even though he has no kids. I mean, I am Jewish, so I wouldn’t be lying, but is there a code of honor that says showing up solely to meet new people is wrong? Shouldn’t I care more about the subject matter?

So yeah, joining’s great in theory. In practice, it’s complicated. You’ve got to be picky about where you allocate your precious time if making new friends fast is the end goal.

Any activity suggestions for the aspiring friender? An unexpected-but-awesome tip that came my way lately is Roller Derby. Now that would be badass.

Read more about new Oy! blogger Rachel’s quest to meet her new BFF.


Questions for a hero

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Natan Sharansky currently serves as Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel photo 1

Natan Sharansky currently serves as Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking about questions to ask Natan Sharansky. In fact, I’ve got a list in my head as I prepare to possibly interview the man who has inspired countless Russian-speaking Jews to fight for their right to practice Jewishly.

Let me back up a bit. Born Anatoliy Shcharanskiy in the Ukraine, Sharansky is now the head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, which promotes aliyah and Jewish identity. But his path to this position has been thorny.

A scientist and childhood chess prodigy, Sharansky sought to move to Israel in the early 1970s and was denied the exit visa in 1973. This prompted him to become a human rights activist and a spokesperson for the Moscow Helsinki Group, which was headed by the Academician Sakharov. Group members were outspoken critics of the Soviet government and its abuse of basic human rights. The tough political atmosphere was further exacerbated for Jews, who had more affinity with Israel than the Soviet Union, where anti-Semitism was pervasive and organized religion was forbidden.

The denial of an exit visa marked the beginning of Refusenik life for Sharansky, who became active in the international movement to let Soviet Jewry emigrate. Convicted in 1978 of treason and spying on behalf of the United States, Sharansky was sentenced to 13 years in prison, serving part of his sentence in the Siberian Gulag.

Under pressure from the American Jewish community and after direct intervention from President Reagan—who were alerted to his plight by his indefatigable wife, Avital—Sharansky was freed and allowed to immigrate to Israel in 1986. He became involved in Israeli politics, served in the Knesset and as a Cabinet Minister.\

Questions for a hero photo 2

Natan Sharansky and his wife Avital were reunited in 1986 after he was allowed to emigrate.

Sharansky’s story of steadfast commitment to his ideals is beyond inspiring to those of us whose families come from the former Soviet Union and who know firsthand (or from our parents’ stories) what it means to be denied school admission, a job or a home because of that pesky “fifth line” in the passport that used to say “Jewish” under the “Ethnic origin” category.

Under the guise of building a “new Soviet person,” the Soviet government suppressed all outward signs of separate identity. Jews helped create the Soviet Union because of the belief that socialism would grant them the rights they never had under the czars. Yet their own cultural and religious heritage was suppressed by rulers who believed that belonging to any group—be it Jews, Tatars or Georgians—would preclude a person from loyalty to the state.

My own family, while not directly involved in the Refusenik movement, taught me about Sharansky and everything he stood for at a very young age, before it was a safe topic of discussion in Russia. Now, I’ve got a unique chance to interview him when he gives the keynote address at the JUF Annual Meeting Sept. 15.

My list of questions is pretty long already, but I’d love to know what you, our Oy! readers, would ask him if you had the chance. Please submit your questions in the comments—either in English or Russian as I’m hoping to interview him in both languages.


Bat mitzvah for non-schmucks…

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Now I know what “going viral” really means. My dear friend, Gabrielle Birkner, who I met in college at Northwestern, once told me in passing that Paul Rudd deejayed her bat mitzvah back in 1992 before he was a star. I didn’t think much of it (in fact I thought she was kidding) until this video landed at my computer yesterday afternoon, sent to me by a friend of mine who doesn’t even know Gabi, who is now a sophisticated web editor at “The Jewish Daily Forward” in Manhattan. The video is everywhere, all over the web, on Perez Hilton, on MTV, and Gabi and Paul even made it onto Jon Stewart last night. Last summer, I had the honor of standing up in Gabi’s wedding but, alas, our “Clueless” friend did not deejay. Pictured below is Gabi dancing—this time as a bride—and in a much less poufy dress—the hora with some cute little kid and me. Enjoy the retro ride back to Gabi’s bat mitzvah!

Bat mitzvah for non-schmucks photo 1


Paul Rudd Was My Bat Mitzvah DJ

By Gabrielle Birkner

Paul Rudd: Bat Mitzvah DJ from Jewish Forward on Vimeo.

Before Paul Rudd broke into television and movies, the “Dinner for Schmucks” star was working the bar and bat mitzvah circuit in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley. He emceed my bat mitzvah party, back in 1992 — months before landing a recurring role on the NBC drama “Sisters.” (“Clueless” was still a few years off.)

The soft-spoken aspiring actor whom my mom and I met on the hunt for bat mitzvah DJs — I took an immediate liking to Rudd — turned out to be the perfect choice for the event. Rudd, donning a yellow tuxedo jacket, a ruffled shirt, shorts and Doc Martens, ably and energetically led us through all of the bat mitzvah staples: candle-lighting, Coke & Pepsi, toasts, limbo, “Hands Up,” challah-cutting and “YMCA.” And as the “Today” show-themed bat mitzvah party came to a close, he invited my friends onto the dance floor to sing a moving rendition of “That’s What Friends Are For.”

He’s come a long way, to be sure. The movie “Dinner for Schmucks” — in which Rudd stars alongside Steve Carrell — opened last weekend to a bevy of rave reviews. So I thought it would be a fitting time to share some footage of Rudd holding court at my bat mitzvah. That’s me, in the pink dress that I wrote about here, seeming to take the limbo way too seriously.

A big thanks to “Cousin Freya” for sending me the footage, and Nate Lavey for editing it down.
The Sisterhood—Forward.com


The List

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The Great Rabbino brings you the most important Jews in sports

A while back I posted the top 10 best Jews in sports. But today TGR takes a look at the most important Jews in sports. This includes more than just players. I searched owners, executives, players (current and retired), sportswriters, commissioners, and anyone else related to the sports world. See what you think about the list below. Here are the Honorable Mentions: Al Davis, Mike Cammalleri, Kevin Youkilies, Jeff Idelson, Chris Berman, Shahar Peer, and Ike Davis.


10) Sandy Koufax
So you be like, Koufax doesn't play anymore! Yes, I am aware of this. But Koufax is and will always be the most influential Jewish athlete. He is who every Jewish athlete aspires to be. I could not make this list without him.

9) Ryan Braun
If Koufax was then, Braun is now. While Youkilis might be better (the debate continues), Braun is the Hebrew Hammer. He has better PR and was voted in by the fans as an All Star, a team Youkilis didn't make.

8) Yuri Foreman
Foreman's rabbinical future and national exposure places him on this list. While he lost the big fight, he won the hearts of Jewish sports fans everywhere. Mike Cammalleri was heavily debated for this spot as well because of his dominance in the NHL playoffs.

7) Jerry Reinsdorf
Other owners were considered, but Reinsdorf owns two winning teams, the White Sox and Bulls. He also made a bid for the Coyotes. With seven total championships (6 Bulls, 1 White Sox) it would impossible to leave him off this list.

6) Theo Epstein
Epstein is the name running one of the most powerful franchises in all of sports. That’s enough right?

5) Mark Cuban
Cuban is the most vocal of anyone on this list. He has been desperately trying to buy a baseball team. He cares and lets you know. Cuban's Mavericks are always in contention. His passion, success, and recognition make him  #5.

4) David Stern
He could have been higher. As the commissioner of the NBA, Stern has made major decisions like the WNBA and forcing players to go to college for a year. Stern is influential, just not always in the spotlight.

3) Omri Casspi
Casspi has made news. He has a huge following. And most importantly has put Israel on the map for a major sport. He has handled the success with class. 

2) Bud Selig
Selig runs baseball, which is the most important sport in America (at least for Jews). While he is in the spotlight mostly for the steroid scandal, Selig is the powerful Jew in sports.

1) Micky Arison
A month ago Arison was not even on the list. So why is he number one? Well, when you as an owner convince Wade, Bosh, and that other guy to come and play for your basketball team, you become important. Very important. While I hate to say this, Arison will be racking up championships and that is just a fact.

Comment if you think I left someone out. Or shoot me an email at info@thegreatrabbino.com.

And Let Us Say...Amen.
-Jeremy Fine

For more information on Jewish in Sports check out  WWW.THEGREATRABBINO.COM


My take on “This is Where I Leave You”

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My take on “This is Where I Leave You” photo

In my line of work, I deal with helping people find their Jewish identity all of the time. In my personal life I struggle with finding “the one.” It's no wonder that “This is Where I Leave You” stayed on my brain for several weeks. Plus, I was lucky enough to meet the author, Jonathan Tropper, at a reading of the paperback in Chicago.

It shook me as I wondered how I could enjoy the journey and the persona of the protagonist, while at the same time loathing his misogynist and superficial summations of women and what a man wants in a woman.

In fact, Judd Foxman, the Jewish male main character, espouses what I’ve suspected men thought all along: if you aren’t a woman who looks like a model, you aren’t much of a woman at all.

Despite my disappointment in Judd, I still adored him. It reminded me of my favorite quote from “Eat, Pray Love,” a book that I initially loved and then wanted to burn at the end of reading it: “I have a tendency not only to see the best in everyone, but to assume that everyone is emotionally capable of reaching his highest potential...I have been a victim of my own optimism.”

Could Judd possibly be as big of an asshole as he seemed? Is this really how men are? How they think?

Mr. Tropper answered my question before a small crowd at Borders earlier this month. He said, there is a part of all men that are like that. However, Judd is wearing the lenses of a man (and this is on the back of the book, so I’m not a spoiler) whose beloved wife has slept with his boss for an entire year and he has just found out about it. He is emasculated, humiliated, and devastated. Of course he is going to look at women negatively.

Okay, Mr. Tropper has rented some sympathy for Judd. But then I realized a guilty truth: had Judd been a woman whose husband had cheated on her, I would have had no problem with the male depictions in the book. It was just jarring to read it from a different perspective. The female characters include three adulterous women, a therapist engaged to her patient, and a mother more eccentric than the Barbra Streisand character in “Meet the Fockers.”

This made me realize that no matter how empathetic I may think I am, at times I will jump to the wrong conclusions about what motivates people and characters to do what they do and think what they think.

In what I think was the most poignant part of the book, Judd realizes what he has thought all along about his relationship with his brother is inaccurate and skewed. I too frequently fall into that pattern—I think most of us do.

At the book reading, I asked Mr. Tropper if he is Jewish. He said that he is (looking surprised that I asked) and that it would have been really gutsy for someone not Jewish to write a book about a family observing shiva. Then he went on to dismiss the notion (which I didn’t suggest at the time, but many others had) that this is a Jewish book.

It's laughable that he doesn’t believe “This is Where I Leave You” is a Jewish book. The only people who might agree with him are Philip Roth and Woody Allen, but I maintain this is one of the most Jewish books to come out in the last few years.

It’s not just the setting that is Jewish, but the conflicts faced by the characters. This doesn’t mean that the book is not appealing to all audiences, but “This is Where I Leave You” deals with Jewish apathy, identity problems, and intermarriage, as well as faithlessness and dysfunctional relationships between parents and their children.

I wouldn't label Mr. Tropper a self-hater, but it did make me sad to see this disdain on his face towards owning his Jewishness positively.

It's such a shame Mr. Tropper isn't Birthright eligible so he could work some of these issues out. I would love to bring Mr. Tropper to a lively Shabbat meal where intellectual issues are discussed. I would love to show him that there can be more to Judaism than lox and bagels.

Mr. Tropper, there's no shame in calling “This is Where I Leave You” a Jewish book, as I doubt Jhumpa Lahir would run from calling “The Namesake” an Indian book. Similarly, the Indian community has lauded her, and if you would let it, the Jewish community would be admirers of your work as well.

Besides, the spread that they will have at the JCC will probably be better than that ice coffee you drank at Borders.


My Baby's Daddy

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My Baby’s Daddy photo

Lindsay with Daddy ready for her first sled ride at Camp O.S.R.U.I.

Just last week, my slightly- vain 30-something husband came down the stairs wearing shorts, black socks, and yes, sandals.  Being the loving wife that I am, I gently pointed out his fashion faux-pas (ok, so maybe I was on the floor laughing) only to be shocked at his complete indifference, and worse, refusal to change—or at least take off—the socks.

It’s official: I’m married to a dad.

Somehow during my 10 months of pregnancy (yes, that’s right—42 weeks—do the math), as I tried to prepare for all the changes motherhood would bring, I never really considered how fatherhood would change my husband.

I’m not referring to the big stuff changes that happen once you have a child—ranging from changes in your perspectives, priorities, values, lifestyles, and even politics.  For us, having a child really changed so many of these things—some we are still trying to figure out.

I’m referring to the little changes and new traits that emerge and one day you suddenly find yourself married to a “Dad.”  A man who has no problem carrying a pink flowery diaper bag, who in public speaks fluent baby talk to his daughter, and is not above using the ladies room if that is the only bathroom where the changing table is.  You find yourself wondering what happened to the man who once proclaimed that he could never change a diaper without gagging, who now makes up songs about it, or where the man who once never left with so much as a spot on his shirt now often goes to work wrinkled.  And you find yourself loving this new person all the more for his/her selflessness and devotion to being a parent.  (And you figure once your kid is old enough to be embarrassed by his/her appearance, you might get the snazzy dresser back.)

Witnessing some of these changes can even make you fall in love with your significant other all over again.  I realize this every time I hear my husband’s Elmo voice. My husband has always been great with voice impersonations—especially George W. Bush and any line from Harlem Nights.  But now instead of Eddie Murphy lines, I will hear a high-pitched Elmo voice “Oh, that tickles Elmo the most!”   I love this silly side that I just didn’t get the chance to see much of before.

(Incidentally, on Purim, my husband used his Elmo voice for a reading.  The kids were hypnotized. Afterwards, a mother came up and told him that her VERY excited daughter had turned to her and said, “Mommy, I didn’t know that Elmo was Jewish!”)

And some of these changes can be really practical and useful, such as my husband’s newfound interest in having a clean home.  The same man who once could go years without cleaning his toilet now follows me around the house with a dustbuster.  That’s not to say he has suddenly become a neat freak—he’s just started to do and care more.  But it’s a start, and I’ll take it.

As great as some of these changes are, there are, of course some changes and new traits that I could live without.  You know, black socks and sandals aren’t exactly a turn-on.  (He would probably say the same about my sweats and t-shirts but hey, this is about him).  And I could totally live without the “Activity Dad” that takes possession of my husband’s body on the weekend. Before my daughter was born, my husband liked nothing better than to spend his off-duty time relaxing. And I liked it that way.  But now nary a weekend goes by without at least one big family activity.  The same person who once proclaimed that a day off spent doing absolutely nothing was the perfect day, now rides Mommy’s ass on the weekend mornings to hurry out the door for these activities.  Seriously, is it too much to ask to have a half hour—time I don’t have during the week—to take care of some personal grooming?

Of course, all this is trivial to the fact that my husband is an absolutely amazing father.  And I can’t express just how special it is has been to watch my daughter and husband together—to see how much they both love and adore each other.  Raising a child together has truly taught me how love grows over the years.  Black socks and all.

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